First Chill, Then Stupor, Then the Letting Go

She tiptoed gingerly down the jagged stone path, tray balanced in hand, superior reflexes keeping her safe and non-stumbling. He watched, impassive, fermenting in water up to his waist, as she hopped gingerly on to the dock, then kicked off her sandals and carefully lowered herself onto the wooden slats, resting the tray beside her.

"I brought tea," she said.

He nodded once in greeting, then kicked swiftly and floated onto his back, drifting.

"So do you want some?" she tried again.

He shook his head and kicked, breast-stroking around her to the other side of the dock, where he could see her. He drew his knees to his chest and clamped his toes over the slats, bringing his hands up around them until he floated semi-upright. This vantage point adjustment appeared to be the sole concession to her presence he was prepared to make, but gamely, she persisted.

"So, this is nice. The woods, the lake, the healing power of nature.very cute."

He began tracing little circles into the water with his finger, watching her impassively.

"The doctor says you're doing VERY well," she told him. "Mostly healed, still a little stiff, but the aqua- therapy seems to be helping."

That, finally, provoked a response: a derisive chuckle. "Well, HE says it is.".

She glanced up sharply, alarmed. "It isn't? Giles, are you in pain right now?"

He shrugged, body stretching, limbs floating dumbly out behind him. He closed his eyes and let the sun burn gently on his face for a moment, then bent to his knees and firmly planted them on the sandy lake bottom.

"Are you?" she demanded, scuttling forward a little. "Should I go get someone? Your doctor? One of the nurses?"

He hesitated, then shook his head. "It does help a little," he said. "At least, it helps more than they do."

This was the most he had said to her, so she was prepared to concede. "You're all right, though," she told him. "I mean, after all, it's not the first time you've been banged up a little, right?"

An intangible shadow danced briefly in his eyes, but he nodded. "I'm fine, Buffy. Bruises heal."

"Yeah. But scars don't."

He kicked up a cloud of sand, and she suddenly realized why he hadn't gotten out of the water yet. He was hiding in it. He didn't want her to see.

"It's been two weeks," she said, stunned. "Is it still.?"

"It's healing."

"But you were."

"I was hurt, Buffy," he said, sounding suddenly tired. "There were broken bones. There was internal bleeding."

"But."

But unlike some of us, I am not so young, and I don't have slayer healing. I have to do it the old fashioned way, and that.it HURTS."

She reached out a hand to him, then, not sure what to do with it, let it drop awkwardly to her side. "I know. But Giles."

"I don't want to talk about it," he said stiffly.

"Giles, I."

"I don't," he said firmly. "I appreciate the visit, Buffy. You're the only one to come, and it was very thoughtful. But I still have to do my exercises."

"Let me help."

"I'd rather you didn't."

"I've seen you hurt before, Giles."

"You haven't," he snapped. "Buffy, the last time I was hurt.like this.was when Angelus.well, I'd daresay you don't want to talk about THAT, do you?"

"Playing that card to get out of dealing with this one? Not gonna work, Giles. I know this trick. I'm the sole begotten saviour of the world, remember? Nobody knows the troubles I've seen." Her eyes clouded over as his words sunk in. "Like Angelus? This was really like.that?"

He clenched shut his eyes.

"God, Giles, I didn't know. I'm sorry."

That piqued his interest. "Are you? Why?"

"You didn't do any of this," she said softly. "People hurt you. It was done TO you. But me---I did do stuff. And it hurt me, and it was horrible and terrible, but in the end, it was my own fault. But you.you had nothing to do with this. You weren't even here."

"But I should have been," he said. "I went away, and I shouldn't have. I should have known you all weren't ready."

"Now, that's not fair," she said. "You can't blame yourself just because you can't solve everyone's problems, Giles. You always tell ME that. So many vampires, only one slayer.well, okay, TWO slayers, but still.lots of people I didn't save, right? Can't think about them. Can only think about the ones I did save."

He tipped his head back and let the water soak into it. "That's not the same thing."

"Why not? Cause you're the wise, sagely grown-up and I'm the young, impressionable kid? Please. Look at you, Giles. You are pouting. And not only that, but you're sulking. Like a little five-year-old."

He frowned petulantly. "I am not. Stop that."

"You are. Listen to you! You're right because you say so and you don't have to talk to me if you don't want to? Giles, come on!"

He ducked underwater, and resurfaced with a loud---and pointed---splash. "I need to do my exercises."

She jumped to her feet. "Great, I can help you. Range-of-motion stuff, right?"

She shrugged off her jacket. There was a bikini under it.

"Buffy, you shouldn't."

She hopped in the water, not even flinching at its coldness. "Why not?"

He looked down at himself, water-pruned and bruised and vulnerable and shivering. "It's hardly appropriate, this.well, this."

"What? I'd have to touch you? Is that what this is about? Giles, come on, we've touched before. We've sparred, we've wrestled, we've tussled.heck, we've yoga'd, and that's as intimate as it comes. I think we can manage some light aqua-therapy, don't you?"

His creaky, frigid muscles crackled painfully in his bones. He was late for his medicine. He was cold, and he was stiff, and he had to do his exercises. Meekly, he let her approach him. "Right, then. Let's get it done."

Her fingers stumbled on his damp, slippery skin. "If you come out of the water a little, I'll be able to see better," she chastised.

"They call it aqua-therapy," he snitted archly, "Because it takes place in.well, in the water."

She raised an eye. "Oooh, grumpy. Okay, elbow first. Bend here." She braced him gently as he bent his arm forward and back, forward and back.

"And okay, slackage for the whole not feeling well deal," continued Buffy. "But really, that will only take you so far. I did tell you I talked with that doctor of yours on my way outside---it was him that tipped me off to wear the bathing suit---and he told me.get this. He told me you have an attitude problem."

Giles winced as she bent his arm too far over. "You do have doctor-patient confidentiality in this blasted country, don't you?"

"If you go to a regular hospital, yes. But these new-agey hospital-slash- retreat places---well, they'll heal you however they can---doesn't matter so long as you get healed. He thinks you'll talk to me. You certainly won't talk to him! Right side."

She eased his torso into a mild side stretch, and he hissed with pain and inhaled sharply. "Buffy."

"No slack on this one, mister. This is what you need to work on." She held him firmly as he stumbled, panting raspily.

"He said," continued Buffy mercilessly, holding his side and blocking him from rising, "That you are secretive. Closed off. Bottled up. That you won't TALK about it."

"I don't want to talk," he croaked between strained breaths. "Buffy, please."

"Five more seconds. I've already told you, Giles, I don't care what you want. I've grown as a person, but not so much that I don't look out for me. And what I want is YOU healthy. I need you, Giles. I am finally realizing how much. I need you to be okay, and that means you have to talk about it. Let it out. Deal with it."

He batted her arm with a dripping palm. "Buffy, stop."

"I know what you're going through," she told him. "When I first came back.I was just like this. Distant. Vulnerable. And in terrible, selfish pain. But you wouldn't let me, Giles. You brought me back. Now it's my turn. Talk to me, Giles. Share it with me. Let me HELP you."

She took her hand away and he collapsed to his knees, chest spasming with raspy breaths. She held her hand out to him. "It's okay."

He was spent. The pain ran through him in channels, in his side, in his limbs, in his soul.and she had stretched away his barriers. The tears began before he could stop them, and he dove underwater, hoping she had not seen. She had; she reached without looking and heaved him to the surface. He eked out careful breathing between the sobs.

"That was immensely painful," he managed after a moment.

"Works the stiffness out," she said. "It's good for you."

He rubbed his side. "That's not what I meant. Well, all right, it is, but it's.not."

"I know. Left side."

"You've got to be kidding."

"It's good for you. Now, come on."

He gently eased into the stretch, but he was struggling. She kept up a steady stream of chatter to distract him. "It's been hard for me too, you know---dealing with the fact that my best friend---the one who should know better, the one who should know exactly how much these yearly end-of-the- world things take out of me---that she could even be capable of causing such destruction. And I've been feeling really guilty, because it was actually sort of good for me----snapped me out of my.what was I in, exactly?"

"A mood," he gritted through pain-clenched teeth. "Buffy."

"Five more seconds. And no, it wasn't a mood. I'm not sure that's a strong enough word. And you know---that was her fault too, with the bringing me back---and I haven't quite forgiven her for that, and I doubt I ever will. I don't think even you can understand the depth of agony she left me in. But you know what I realized? What I didn't realize until she tried to end the world? That actions---even ones that are connected---are still individual actions. And you can only be blamed for the ones you did."

She slowly eased him out of the stretch and looked him in the eye. "That's an important one, so I want you to think about it for a minute. You did leave me. And maybe you shouldn't have. But that doesn't mean that everything that happened after was your fault. You didn't make me sleep with Spike. You didn't make Willow go to Rack. You didn't."

"If I'd been here, you wouldn't have. She wouldn't have. I would have stopped you."

"Really? Think about it for a minute, Giles. I was in so much pain that it took the end of the world to snap me out of it. The end of the world. We almost died, Giles. All of us almost died, and Tara."

"I should have been here," he said.

"Maybe you should have. And I should have been a better friend, and a better sister, and a better person." She smiled. "I'm trying, you know---on all those counts. I'm trying."

He nodded.

"And it can be hard sometimes," she said. "It's so easy to give up, to just wait for the problem to go away. When I saw you zap into the magic shop like that, all leather coat and strong and powerful.it's like a part of me just shut off and went oh great, it's okay, the grown-up is finally here to bail us out."

"Buffy."

"But we can't live like that, can we? If the whole world is the kid and you're the only grown-up.well, it can't work like that, can it? That isn't good for anyone."

He wriggled out of her grip and floated onto his back again. "No," he agreed. "It isn't."

"So all we can do is be there for each other," she told him. "Can you do that? Are you ready to come back to us yet?"

"Buffy, please."

"I miss you," she said. "Dawn misses you. We all do. Heck, even Miss Kitty misses you, and you don't want to leave HER all disappointed, do you?"

He smiled. "Heavens, no."

"So will you."

"Not now."

He face fell. "You won't come back?"

"I might," he said. "But I thought we could enjoy the sunset first."

He reached below the surface and yanked her ankles, sending her tumbling with a splash onto her back, beside him. The stars were almost out, and the world was beautiful.

The end

Note: Title borrowed from Emily Dickinson.